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Risk-taker avoids her fear: being normal

At 52, she has broken a skydiving record and had a brush with death as a police officer. She's looking for her next big challenge.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Paula Zitzelberger embraces the extraordinary.

"I have a fear of being normal," she said. "When I'm in my 80s, I don't want to think I wish I had done this, I wish I had done that."

Zitzelberger, 52, already has done plenty.

She broke the national altitude record for female parachutists in 1973. She paid a painful price after helping to shatter the Police Department's gender barrier. She has appeared on network television.

"I wish she would have just played bridge," said Miriam Mullins, 81, Zitzelberger's mother.

After graduating from Boca Ciega High School, Zitzelberger married in 1964. Five years later, she was a mother of one when she enrolled in the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport parachuting school.

"I told (my husband) Jay I was going shopping," Zitzelberger said.

Weeks later, at age 21, Zitzelberger made her first jump. "I was exhilarated for days," she recalled. Zitzelberger concealed her hobby, trying not to worry her family.

Her mother later would concede: "I discovered long ago that Paula was going to do what she wanted."

Her brother-in-law, police Officer Stephen Zitzelberger, also 52, was confused: "Why would she jump out of a perfectly good plane?"

One jump carried Paula into electrical wires. "I could feel the lines," she said. "I went through them and to the ground."

After nearly 140 jumps and a second child, Zitzelberger challenged the women's national altitude record of 21,000 feet. It was Oct. 27, 1973.

"Don't be afraid to go out on a limb," is Zitzelberger's adopted motto. "That's where the fruit is."

The fruit that day was a planned 30,000-foot fall in Zephyrhills that required oxygen gear. "I took four tranquilizers and stayed in St. Petersburg," her mother remembered.

Zitzelberger fought the minus-47 degrees with a woolen ski mask, a woolen ski outfit, two pairs of gloves, one flight suit and one black and white jumpsuit. Any exposed flesh would freeze instantly.

Before the 200 mph descent from the single-engine plane, Zitzelberger's assistant passed out. He was revived, and she jumped. Two minutes 15 seconds later, she had a record.

The jump of 28,090 feet held three years, said the National Aviation Association.

Her next big leap came in 1974. Zitzelberger, a parking enforcement officer, was among the first women to enter the police academy. "I was getting a divorce and needed a steady job," she said.

Zitzelberger, police Chief Goliath Davis III and Officer Mike Peacock were the "Mod Squad," Davis said, referring to the television show from that era. Davis called Zitzelberger "passionate, professional, top-shelf."

Most officers were either protective or skeptical of female partners, Zitzelberger recalled. And residents would say, "I called for a cop; why did they send a woman?"

Seven weeks after graduation, in August 1974, Zitzelberger and Officer Mike Weaver were called to a 28th Street S home. A man was threatening to kill his daughter.

Zitzelberger put on her hat and stepped out of the cruiser. "Gunfire," she said. "I was hit."

The .22-caliber rifle bullet ripped through her hat and entered the left side of her scalp. "Head wounds definitely bleed," said Zitzelberger, who saved the hat.

Zitzelberger crawled behind the cruiser while a 10-minute gun battle ensued. Police cars filled the street, initially blocking the ambulance. "I thought I was going to die," she said.

The wound required 60 stitches to close. She still has some loss of feeling on the right side of her body.

The assailant, John Ringgo, was found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He served less than seven years. Zitzelberger returned to the streets three weeks after the ambush.

"Getting shot added to my credibility," said Zitzelberger, who became a detective in 1978. "If you want equal rights, you must also take equal risks."

The brush with death would land Zitzelberger on TV's To Tell the Truth and What's My Line. "Actor Alan Alda figured me out," she said.

Fascinated by child abuse and runaway cases, Zitzelberger until 1983 taught stranger awareness and traffic as a school liaison officer. As a vice decoy, Zitzelberger once arrested her girlfriend's father for solicitation. "It's a three-ring circus," she said, "and you've got a front row seat."

Zitzelberger retired from the police force and the economic crimes unit last Jan. 1. She soon expects to earn a bachelor's degree in art from Eckerd College. She also is working part-time patrol duty with the Police Department reserves.

"I'm thinking of another way to make a difference before I'm 80," Zitzelberger said.

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